Head of School Blog "A Focus on Community"

Dear Orchard Friends and Families,
Last week I wrote about the mindset that has framed our work for the 2020-21 school year:  creativity, compassion, and community.  This week I will focus specifically on our community, highlighting effective mitigation strategies inside and outside of school, and the ongoing work and planning that informs us as we continue to monitor the public health landscape and the impact of COVID-19 on our city, state, and country.
Mitigation Strategies Outside of School
Over the last two weeks, we have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in Indianapolis and across the United States.  Public health experts have been anticipating the likelihood of increasing cases in the fall with more of our daily activities moving indoors, and with flu season making it harder to differentiate between the symptoms of COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold.  Nevertheless, the increased positivity rates are worrisome and weigh heavily on all of us as we anticipate the weeks and months ahead.  As children were returning to school in Indiana in August, Dr. Aaron Carroll from the IU School of Medicine wrote in his New York Times article that  “each decision we make to reduce risk helps.”  Large social gatherings and sleepovers are choices that can have a much broader impact on our school community beyond an initial group of students or families. And as we consider upcoming fall celebrations like Halloween and Thanksgiving, it is more important than ever that we think carefully about our individual actions, and how they all impact our ability to be in school.  This week the CDC issued updated guidance about holiday celebrations, and emphasized the importance of weighing these six key factors as we continue to be vigilant in mitigating risk:
  • The location of the gathering – Indoor gatherings generally pose more risk than outdoor gatherings. Indoor gatherings with poor ventilation pose more risk than those with good ventilation, such as those with open windows or doors.
  • The duration of the gathering – Gatherings that last longer pose more risk than shorter gatherings.
  • The number of people at the gathering – Gatherings with more people pose more risk than gatherings with fewer people. CDC does not have a limit or recommend a specific number of attendees for gatherings. The size of a holiday gathering should be determined based on the ability to reduce or limit contact between attendees, the risk of spread between attendees, and state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations.
  • The locations attendees are traveling from – Gatherings with attendees who are traveling from different places pose a higher risk than gatherings with attendees who live in the same area. Higher levels of COVID-19 cases and community spread in the gathering location, or where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees.
  • The behaviors of attendees prior to the gathering – Gatherings with attendees who are not adhering to social distancing (staying at least 6 feet apart), mask wearing, hand washing, and other prevention behaviors pose more risk than gatherings with attendees who are engaging in these preventative behaviors.
  • The behaviors of attendees during the gathering –Gatherings with more preventive measures in place, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing, pose less risk than gatherings where fewer or no preventive measures are being implemented.  (“Holiday Celebrations,” Updated 10/19/20)
Finally, if you or any members of your household have not yet had a flu shot, please do so. 
Reducing the chances for infection from influenza helps all of us as we monitor ourselves and our family members for potential COVID-19 symptoms, and it supports the overall public health of our community.
Mitigation Strategies at School
Here at school as the fall has progressed and we get closer to winter, we continue to focus on the mitigation strategies of masking, physical distancing, cohort grouping, temperature screening, and regular hand sanitation throughout the day.  While this week we have seen several news stories reporting that schools do not seem to be driving community transmission of COVID-19, we know that we must remain vigilant.  Our mild fall weather has helped us make good use of our outdoor spaces, and we will take advantage of opportunities to use those outdoor venues longer by asking all of our preschool through eighth-grade students to come well equipped with warm and waterproof outerwear during this second quarter of the school year.  
Cooler weather will mean that we will be indoors more often, and our goal is to create the healthiest indoor environment possible to support the health of our students, faculty, staff, and our extended community.  The facilities upgrades that we completed before we began school in August are especially important through the colder weather, particularly the upgrades to our heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.  Our updated HVAC and air filtration systems have improved air quality and the sanitation of surface areas by increasing the amount of outside air being introduced into the building and using UV technology and hydrogen peroxide particles to reduce the distance that viruses spread in the air by 50%.  We are continuing our increased cleaning and sanitation practices around the building supported by additional custodial staff, and all of our faculty and staff continue to complete a health screening every morning before we come into school so that we can be vigilant in monitoring the health of all of our employees.  
Our additional nursing staff and separate symptom screening rooms have ensured that we have the personnel and spaces to support the health of our students, faculty, and staff across the day, including the work of contact tracing when members of our school have tested positive for COVID-19.  This week the CDC issued updated guidelines for contact tracing, which will be incorporated into our practices as we respond and follow up with any reported cases amongst our students, faculty, or staff. Please keep your child at home if he or she is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and reach out to school nurse Nicole Neucks (nurse@orchard.org) right away if you need to report a positive case in your household, have questions about your child’s health, or need any additional information.  A reminder that we have shared guidance from the Indiana State Department of Health on “When a student, faculty, or staff member can return to school” on our school’s parent portal, as well as other resources from ISDH.  
Additional Parent Resources
You can monitor updated public health information for communities and schools on the ISDH’s Indiana COVID-19 Data Report, and the Marion County Public Health Department’s COVID-19 School Guidance Dashboard.  Other helpful resources for parents include:
The last title on that list includes a link to “COVID-19 Outlook: The Fall Wave is Here, but its Outcome is Not Predetermined,” which I highly recommend.  This introduction to their updated guidance for schools from the PolicyLab group at CHOP emphasizes the strategies that are important for schools and all of us to embrace this fall, including the imperative that we cannot give in to the “pandemic fatigue” that could cause us to drop our guard at the time when we need to be the most vigilant.  This was the same message that the Indiana State Department of Health led with on Friday in their weekly school webinar. Deputy State Health Commissioner Pam Pantones emphasized that we now have a great deal more data about COVID-19, and know how to slow the spread and prevent its impact on our communities and our schools.  
While we have some distance to travel before we are on the other side of the pandemic, I am confident that if we all continue to faithfully practice the mitigation strategies that have proven to be effective, we will continue to keep our community safe.  In the weeks ahead, please practice the same care and vigilance that you would for your own child for the sake of every student, faculty, and staff member at The Orchard School.  We will always do our very best to take good care of them while they are here, and to support them as they grow and thrive.
Sherri C. Helvie, Ph.D.
Head of School